My Career Choice: Monique Martin, Director of Programming, Harlem Stage

As a propagator of art, culture and ideas, Monique Martin brings her passion and experience in community building through the arts to elevate and instigate. 

As an independent curator, producer and marketing consultant, Martin has partnered with and produced for Joe’s Pub, Disney Theatricals, Apollo Theater, New Victory Theater, Southbank Centre/UK, Hip Hop Theater Festival, Harlem Stage, NJPAC, Queens Theater in the Park, HBO and numerous Broadway and Off -Broadway productions. She brought her vision and expertise to City Parks Foundation (CPF) from 2007-2017 as Programming Director for SummerStage where she presented relevant, fresh and thoughtful programming to New York City communities annually in Central Park and 100+ parks city wide, presenting over 1,200 multi-genre programs reaching audiences 600,000+.  

As an ardent facilitator of collaborations across cultures, sectors and genres that foster cross-cultural exchange she has partnered with cultural consulates and embassies from Sweden, France, Spain, Finland and Quebec in presenting dance, circus and music. Prior to joining CPF she was Associate Director of Programming for Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) as part of the River to River Festival. 

She is currently the Director of Programming for Harlem Stage, a performing arts center that commissions and nurtures artist of color while celebrating the unique and diverse artistic legacy of Harlem and the indelible impression it has made on American culture and the world. 

Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
When I was young my family and I would attend everything from puppetry to opera to dance to Broadway shows, and I would put on my own plays. I wanted to be a part of the behind the scenes aspect of the performing arts, not realizing at the time that it was actually a career. Later, when I was in high school I hosted a lot of events, from bands performing in my backyard to dinner parties. I look back on that time and say that those parties and concerts that I put on in my backyard and living room, and those shows that I attended and put on, prepared me for the career that I have now.

What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
I look at what I do through a triangular approach and that includes: the audience, the artist and the venue. How do we combine these three ingredients to make a transformational experience? Every performance is different because of the artist or the makeup of the audience— and that energy can never be duplicated. It is a privilege and a fascinating thing to witness. Providing a space for audiences and artists to be moved/changed/challenged is a profound honor that I don’t take lightly.

What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I began my performing arts career in theater and I knew quickly that performing was just not my gift so I challenged myself to learn every single job backstage. I’ve done everything from props and wardrobe to lighting and sound to stage management, to learn all the moving parts that go in to present performing arts. The first thing that I was excited about was stage management because I felt like I was close to the action, to the director and their vision, and that I was integral to the artist. From there a circuitous journey led me to what I am doing now, which is curating and programming the shows that are up on the stage.

Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
My family was not discouraging but they were confused because there was no one in my family that worked behind the scenes. I think if you don’t understand the important players that support the artist then you don’t value those jobs. My mother was a dancer, my father an amateur musician, my sister is a dancer and my aunt is a singer, so our family understands performance. When I said, “I’m moving to New York to be a stage manager,” which was my big dream in leaving California, they were like “what is that? Are we ever going to see you on TV?” It was forging new ground and blazing a trail that I did not have a compass for, so I wasn’t expecting encouragement. But once I was excelling in the field, I had a lot of support and mentors.

Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
I never doubted my decision but I have had several career changes within the field of entertainment and that has been exciting and extraordinary. I went from being a stage manager on Broadway to working in the music industry to now being a presenter, programmer and curator. I am proud and excited about every twist and turn of my journey.

When did your career reach a tipping point?
I would say that after ten years of SummerStage and prior to that two years with River to River, I reached a tipping point where I felt like I knew enough about outdoor festival presenting and wanting to expand into commissioning and supporting artists to create new work.

Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Leaving a position at a very well-known and highly regarded organization like SummerStage and coming to a smaller organization with an incredibly important but very specific mission, meant taking a risk and overcoming fear of the unknown.

What single skill has proven to be most useful?
I would say being nimble, coupled with deep listening skills. This field, and the world, is constantly changing. Technology has influenced how people communicate and interact and has made it even more important to be nimble in this field.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Being a leader in presenting contemporary circus and introducing contemporary circus to a broader constituency and audience in the United States. It is a genre that is huge internationally and growing in this country.

Any advice for others entering your profession?
There are so many platforms now to express yourself and to get your voice and art out because of technology, including podcasts, SoundCloud or Mixcloud. There are so many platforms to amplify one’s voice and vision. My advice is to create a podcast or to create some platform where you can align with like-minded people and have conversations around your interests. Opportunities will come from getting out there with investigation and conversation.

Additionally, artists should look for organizations that will give space grants. Even though they might not be able to secure funding, there are so many organizations that would allow you to use their space to investigate, explore and play. Institutions want energy and vibrancy in their building. You might not be at a place where you can get programmed yet, but you can still investigate ideas and work towards amplifying your own voice and creativity.

At 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 19, Grammy nominee Maimouna Youssef aka MuMu Fresh (above), will be performing her latest album, “Vintage Babies.” 

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